“Stir up, O Lord, thy power, and come!” (Collect of the Mass of the First Sunday of Advent).
In the beginning, “the Lord God formed man of the slime of the earth: and breathed into his face the breath of life, and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7). Man is not an accident, a chance product of a blind evolutive process; man is a masterpiece, the handiwork of God.
While this is a great dignity, it is also a motive for humility. For, to say “creature” is to say “dependent.” Without God we can do nothing. The sons of Noah wanted to build a tower to heaven (cf. Gen. 11:4). They thought that by their own ingenuity they could achieve a certain equality with God. Far from it! Man cannot engineer his way to happiness. Only God, who gave man his being, can perfect it in glory.
When we make an act of hope, we affirm precisely the opposite of this spirit of Babel, for we place all our confidence in the divine assistance. “O my God, relying on thy almighty power…I hope to obtain…life everlasting.”
It was in order to impress on men their utter helplessness that our Lord waited so many centuries to work the redemption. Only after man had descended into a dark, cold winter of barbarity, there finally rose the gentle light of the Messiah. “A light to the revelation of the gentiles” (Lk. 2:32). A light “to enlighten all men, that they may see what is the dispensation of the mystery which hath been hidden from eternity in God, who created all things” (Eph. 3:9).
In the liturgical year these mysteries unfold anew before our eyes. In Advent we long and sigh after the Messias with the patriarchs and prophets of old. We join their chorus to acknowledge that all hope of salvation and happiness lies in Jesus Christ, our Saviour.
Thus, in the Collect of the first Sunday of Advent, we address the Messias: “Stir up, O Lord, thy power, and come!” Come, because we are still in danger of eternal ruin. The grace of the Saviour has not yet fully transformed us; we are still perhaps entangled in the habits of sin from which He came to free us. Therefore we have to prepare ourselves, to make straight the way of the Lord.
“Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be brought low” (Lk. 3:5). Who on his own can level a mountain, or fill in a valley? How many times have we resolved to level the mountains of our pride, to fill in the valleys of our spiritual emptiness with prayer and virtue, only to meet with dismal failure? What was missing?
“If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain: Remove from hence hither, and it shall remove: and nothing shall be impossible to you. But this kind is not cast out but by prayer and fasting” (Mt. 17:19-20).
The problem, as our Lord’s words indicate, is twofold. Firstly, we refuse to fully acknowledge our nothingness before God. Because we still believe in ourselves—the false god of our imagined goodness—there is not yet room to believe in God with that total, childlike confidence that obtains all it asks from the heavenly Father.
Secondly, we do not fast and pray. The saints of two millenia believed firmly in the efficacy of prayer and penance; they practiced it; and they attained their cherished goal of union with God. Do we imagine that we have discovered a shortcut that was unknown to them? That we can arrive at their level of sanctity without imitating their heroism in prayer and penance? Do we imagine that we can simply wish to be holy and that our wish will become reality? Let us be realistic. There is only one road to holiness, the royal road of the cross, which begins with the ascetical practices of prayer and penance, and is consummated by the passive purifications of Christian mysticism.
That is why, even in this season of Advent, while the rigorous Lenten fast is still afar off, Holy Mother the Church asks us to begin already some mild forms of penance. The emptiness of the stomach is a reminder of the emptiness of the world without Christ, the emptiness of the soul without grace. Why are we so careful to satisfy this need of the body, while we neglect to nourish our soul?
Let us mortify, then, our body, and still more let us mortify our heart. We need not look far. The daily duty of state. It is dry, bitter; we do not savour it. Why do we not savour it, except that we do not do it with love? Charity is a condiment that makes everything sweet. There is a sweetness in obeying, in submitting our will and even our judgment to what is not agreeable. “For Christ did not please himself: but, as it is written: The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell upon me” (Rom. 15:3). Christ did not please himself; and shall I? “My meat is to do the will of him that sent me” (Jn. 4:34). Yes, let us take this as our meat, our nourishment, our refreshment: to do the will of God.
All of these resolutions will be without effect if we do not pray. Prayer, penance, humility—this is the groundwork for the advent of Christ. All begins with prayer. We may take, for example, every day a different text from the Mass of Sunday and make that the basis of a short meditation—fifteen minutes alone with our Lord. Life’s business can stop. Let us prepare for the quiet of eternity with this short space of apparent inactivity. We have but little faith if we cannot understand that this is the “better part,” and one which, for all eternity, we shall be glad to have chosen.
Father William MacGillivray